Every single Covid lockdown fine issued since the start of the pandemic should be reviewed, a powerful body has said.
Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) warned people’s rights to a fair trial may not have been ensured under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The cross-party group of MPs and peers said coronavirus rules have changed at least 65 times since March 2020, providing “obvious challenges for police”.
Yet more than 85,000 fixed penalty notices were issued in that time – a system where the only way to challenge a fine is to go through the courts, and risk a criminal record.
The committee today demanded the government introduce “an administrative mechanism” for people to appeal their fines without having to go in front of magistrates.
The committee said: “It is questionable whether the right to a fair trial is properly protected when an Fixed Penalty Notice recipient is too intimidated by the risk of a criminal record to challenge the FPN and risk a criminal prosecution.
“We are concerned that even those that are prosecuted in court, especially those that have been subject to the single justice procedure, may not have benefited from appropriate fair trial protections.
“As such, we recommend all penalties and convictions under the coronavirus Regulations since the outset of the pandemic must be reviewed.
“In addition, a full internal review procedure must now be put in place by the police for all newly issued FPNs under the coronavirus Regulations before the penalty notice is sent to the individual to prevent the high error rate continuing.
The group of MPs and peers warned coronavirus fines are “muddled, discriminatory and unfair” and the system “criminalises the poor over the better-off”.
“Significant concerns” about the validity of the fines, the inadequacy of the review and appeal process, the size of the penalties and the criminalisation of those who cannot afford to pay, were set out in a report.
Committee chair Harriet Harman said: “Swift action to make restrictions effective is essential in the face of this terrible virus.
“But the Government needs to ensure that rules are clear, enforcement is fair and that mistakes in the system can be rectified.
“None of that is the case in respect of Covid-19 fixed penalty notices.”
She acknowledged the “difficult job” police had in enforcing the rules during the pandemic, but warned there could be a larger number of wrongly issued fines because of a “lack of legal clarity”.
Ms Harman added: “This means we’ve got an unfair system with clear evidence that young people, those from certain ethnic minority backgrounds, men, and the most socially deprived, are most at risk.
“Those who can’t afford to pay face a criminal record along with all the resulting consequences for their future development.
“The whole process disproportionately hits the less well-off and criminalises the poor over the better off.”
Reiterating calls for the Government to “distinguish clearly between advice, guidance and the law”, she added: “Our inquiry has demonstrated that coronavirus regulations are neither straightforward nor easily understood either by those who have to obey them or the police who have to enforce them.
“With fixed penalties of up to £10,000 awarded irrespective of the individual’s financial circumstances, there is much at stake.
“The Government needs to review the pandemic regulations and create new checks and balances to prevent errors and discrimination.”
The findings highlighted a Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) review of prosecutions brought under coronavirus regulations that reached open court, which found in February 2021 that 27% were incorrectly charged.
The report added: “It is astonishing that the Coronavirus Act is still being misunderstood and wrongly applied by police to such an extent that every single criminal charge brought under the Act has been brought incorrectly.
“While the coronavirus regulations have changed frequently, the Act has not, and there is no reason for such mistakes to continue.”